Way leads onto way, and book leads onto book. While researching my book Blue Latitudes, about the voyages of Captain Cook, I became fascinated by first contact between alien cultures. In the late 18th century, Cook and his sailors reached dozens of Pacific lands never before seen or even imagined by Europeans. What did they make of the people and places they encountered, and what did Aborigines, Maoris and Hawaiians make of them? This moment of mutual discovery is an experience we simply can’t have today, no matter how far we travel.
Near the end of my research, at an archive in Australia, I came upon an art historian’s study of the painters aboard Cook’s ships. The author compared English portraits of Polynesians to those done by the first European artist in North America – a painter, the book said, who came with 300 French Protestants to colonize Florida, in 1564.
My first reaction was, This Aussie art historian has his facts mixed up. French pilgrims, in Florida, almost 60 years before the Mayflower’s arrival in Massachusetts? Pas possible! I filed this factoid away for future investigation, focused on finishing my Cook book, and forgot all about it.
Until, a year or so later, when I found myself back home in America, on a road trip through New England. Pulling in one night at Plymouth, I went for a morning walk to find the famed site of the Pilgrims’ landing. Having never seen Plymouth Rock, I was startled to discover a small, cracked boulder squatting in a dirty sand pit. But as I pondered the pathetic Rock, I realized something else: Though I’d just published a book about first contact in the Pacific, I knew next to nothing about the parallel story in my native land.
Columbus sailed the ocean blue in fourteen-hundred-and-ninety two. . . . John Smith reached Jamestown in sixteen-oh-something. . . . Myles Standish and the Mayflower Compact – that was about the sum of what I dredged up. Surely there was more. Who were the first Europeans to reach North America? Whom did they encounter? What happened? I decided to find out, and the result is A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World. One of the first things I discovered was that there’s much more to the story than I realized at the start. Vikings who crossed the North Atlantic a thousand years ago and settled a shore they called Vinland; Spanish conquistadors who rampaged across the U.S. continent a century before the first English settled; castaways and pirates and missionaries who roamed and dreamed and often died in the wilds of America; and yes, French Protestants who did in fact found a colony near Jacksonville, before all but two of the Mayflower passengers were born.
My research also carried me outside the library, to see where the explorers went and what mark their exploits have left in the present day. I traipsed from sub-arctic Newfoundland to the Caribbean tropics to desert New Mexico, and many points in between. I met descendants of the native peoples the European first-comers encountered: Micmac, Zuni, Wampanoag, Pamunkey. Like the early explorers, I also had adventures of my own, paddling the Mississippi, marching in 60 pounds of conquistador armor, sipping from Ponce de Le – n’s Fountain of Youth.
The more I learned and saw, the more I wondered why Americans have forgotten the first chapter of their European history – a chapter filled with drama, death, discovery and dark comedy. The true story of America’s founding is pulp nonfiction compared to the creation myth of pious Pilgrims dining with gentle Indians. It’s also critical to understanding how America became the vast, diverse and often divided country we inhabit today.
The title of my book comes from a passage about Columbus’ first landing in America, when he and his men fell to their knees, "thanking God who had requited them after a voyage so long and strange." After the long, strange journey that became this book, I feel as though I’ve rediscovered America – and I can appreciate a little of the marvel and relief that Columbus must have felt.
As he demonstrated in the bestsellers Confederates in the Attic and Baghdad Without a Map, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Tony Horwitz is no stranger to roaming the U.S. and the world. His adventures continue in A Voyage Long and Strange, which chronicles his road trip in search of North America’s earliest visitors and their lingering impact on American culture. Horwitz lives in Martha’s Vineyard with his wife, novelist Geraldine Brooks, and their son, Nathaniel.